He was America’s most wanted man – a gangster so bloodthirsty, Al Capone booted him out of his gang for being too violent.
On 20 April 1934, the police decided to get him. They’d been tipped off that he was staying at a lakeside hotel in Wisconsin, so they launched a secret operation to gun him down.
But George Nelson had been blessed with a round face, large eyes and cute little nose. His fellow crooks called him “Babyface” – behind his back, of course. He hardly looked like a criminal.
When the agents arrived, they locked eyes on a trio of men that apparently did. The men – who were actually undercover FBI agents – were gunned down in a matter of seconds, allowing Babyface and his fellow outlaws to escape.
Gangster George Nelson's baby-faced features made him look less suspicious (Credit: Alamy)
They jumped out of a second-floor window, followed the edge of the lake for several miles, stole a car and got away.
From literally getting away with murder, to monopolising parental love and seducing the opposite sex, the babyface is a potent social weapon.
The doe-eyed look can help people win over their enemies, elicit help from strangers and get ahead in their careers. It makes politicians seem more trustworthy, crooks less likely to be convicted and sentencing less severe.
We’ve been judging people based on the way they look for thousands of years
In all, babyfaced individuals are thought of as more honest, naive, warm, kind, approachable, trustworthy, likeable, familiar, and charismatic than the rest of us.
This trust is misplaced. In fact, they’re more – not less – likely to become criminals. And once they’ve turned their backs on the law, they tend to commit more offences than those who look the part.
Finally – inexplicably – across diverse cultures, in every corner of the globe, baby-faced women are rated as the most attractive. “The big eyes, the long lashes, the arched brows, the plump lips, the small chins, the round face, the cute little nose – if I wasn’t describing a baby, I’d be describing a supermodel,” says Caroline Keating, an expert in non-verbal communication at Colgate University, New York.
So what’s going on?
Cartoon characters like Betty Boop have often borrowed babyface traits (Credit: Alamy)
We’ve been judging people based on the way they look for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks turned it into a science, “physiognomy”. As early as 500 BC, the mathematician Pythagoras would scrutinise young men’s faces to determine if they’d make a good student; not long after Aristotle wrote how large-headed people were mean. It was widely believed at the time that the animal a person resembled was as good a judge of character as any.
By the Middle Ages it was well and truly mainstream. Professionals coined the phrase “stuck-up” to refer from the belief that those with upturned noses had an air of superiority, “high-brow” to refer to the high foreheads of aristocrats and “low-brow” to the less refined foreheads of the lower classes.
Deep in our evolutionary past, the ability to make rapid, unconscious categorisations had life-and-death importance
Back in 2016, we’re still doing it. We view those who resemble Labradors as warm, while those who resemble lions as more dominant. We think of those with “resting moody face” as more aggressive, those who are less attractive as sick and expect people who look familiar to share our values. Many of these judgements occur in as little as 50 milliseconds.
These bizarre subconscious errors aren’t as ridiculous as they sound. Faces contain valuable clues to who we’re dealing with (Are they aggressive? Are they sick?). Deep in our evolutionary past, the ability to make rapid, unconscious categorisations had life-and-death importance.
To get to grips with why having a babyface is so great, first we need to understand what happens when we recognise an actual baby.
If your face mirrors the feature of infants, you may be afforded all sorts of advantages (Credit: Getty Images)
In fact the features of babies – and those universally considered “cute” – are nothing more than a series of developmental accidents. Since our eyes are already fully grown by the time we’re born and our heads aren’t – doting eyes, check. Similarly, our bodies do a lot more growing later on than our heads; giant cranium, check. They have more body fat than adults; chubby cheeks, check. The list goes on.
We’re so sensitive to the systematic changes which occur as we grow, the oldest of two individuals can be identified by even the tiniest perceptible difference in facial structure.
And regardless of whether you’re very maternal or find babies really annoying, we’re hardwired to respond to their features by turning into cooing, baby-talking lunatics. Crucially, gazing into their innocent faces makes us less aggressive and more generous, smiley and helpful.
Their power is such that ‘cute’ features have been appropriated the world over to sell products and make cartoons more endearing
“These cues fly beneath the conscious radar – they act on our brains without us even realising that they’ve registered,” says Keating.
Their power is such that ‘cute’ features have been appropriated the world over to sell products and make cartoons more endearing (think Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and Bambi). In 2012, babies’ faces were painted onto a parade of shops in south-west London in an attempt to reduce crime.
That’s because regardless of who or what these features are plastered on to, our behaviour is transformed the moment the brain screams “baby”. “They call out help me, protect me, I’m no threat to you – just as they do for infants,” says Keating.
When babies' faces were painted on these shutters in south-west London, crime decreased (Credit: YouTube)
In one study, participants had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of babies and baby-faced men. The neural activation patterns of women looking at baby-faced men were indistinguishable from when they looked at actual babies. Those on the contraceptive pill – and those who are the most fertile – may be more susceptible than others.
Back in 2003, she put the power of the babyface to the test. She adapted a classic psychology experiment first pioneered in the 1960s, the “lost letter technique”. It works like this. Imagine you find a lost letter – it’s addressed, stamped and ready to go. Would you mail it for them? It’s a simple way to measure peoples’ willingness to help a stranger.
Keating and colleagues wrote a cover letter for a fictional job and a resume for a fictional applicant and printed 584 of them. Each was attached to an envelope which was stamped and addressed to an apparent potential employer – though really they were addressed to a mailbox for which Keating had the key.
If our faces are driving the way we’re treated by other people, we need to know about that - Caroline Keating, Colgate University
“The crowning touch on this little packet was a brightly coloured post-it note and on that we hand-wrote ‘MAIL TODAY,” she says. They were all identical, except one detail: the photo on the resume either had disarming babyish looks or the shrewd appearance which comes with age.
Even the faces themselves weren’t real, made from eight male and female black and white college graduates blended together. The images were then digitally altered to make their eyes 15% bigger and their lips 15% pudgier, or that much beadier and thinner.
“My co-investigators were my college students; they were very good at losing things. So I asked them to lose the letters in metropolitan New York and Nairobi, Kenya,” she says. The resumes were misplaced on park benches, sidewalks, public transit stops, outdoor markets, phone booths, anywhere there was moderate traffic – but nowhere windy.
Do politicians gain any benefit if they're seen to have softer features? (Credit: Getty Images)
Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to put together this package. Would any make it to the “employer”?
Many of them never arrived, but of the 36% that did, most were baby-faced. “I have to say, there was a lot of guilt attached to the procedure. But if our faces are driving the way we’re treated by other people, we need to know about that,” says Keating.
Babyfaces may also influence our behaviour indirectly – with alarming social consequences.
A few years earlier in 1999, Keating tried a similar experiment, this time meddling with the faces of politicians. Unsuspecting volunteers were shown images of US presidents which had been altered to make them more or less babyish, then asked to rate them for dominance, strength, cunning, honesty, attractiveness and compassion.
The “babyface overgeneralisation effect” tricks us into finding other childlike qualities, such as innocence, in those who merely look like them
The big-eyed politicians were generally rated as warmer, more honest and attractive. This was especially true for the incumbent Clinton, who Keating speculates may have been helped by his babyish looks only the year before; throughout the Lewinsky scandal and the following impeachment trial he remained wildly popular with the general public.
The “babyface overgeneralisation effect” tricks us into finding other childlike qualities, such as innocence, in those who merely look like them.
“Forget expression – it’s the structure of the face itself that conveys these signals. We get our first impressions from the face and it sticks,” says Keating, who points out that most people are also susceptible to “confirmation bias” – the tendency to unconsciously search for, and hold on to, information which confirms our pre-existing beliefs. “People love to be right.”
Supermodels like Lindsey Wixon often sport baby-faced features (Credit: Getty Images)
The thing is, resembling a baby might prevent politicians from being elected in the first place. Babyfaced people are viewed as more submissive, weaker and less competent – not exactly traits considered desirable in a leader.
In the UK, there are plenty of examples of politicians who may have fallen victim, from former Conservative leader William Hague – who lost the 2001 election to Tony Blair – to the current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who was told he was “not a leader” only a matter of months ago.
For women, it could be even more of a challenge. “Hillary Clinton has to get over the fact that as a female, she has a more babyish face. And people won’t even know they’re being affected when they’re looking at her and saying ‘I don’t think she’s a leader, but I don’t know why’,” says Keating.
But there’s a twist. Even the downsides of babyishness – being viewed as submissive, weak and less competent – can, oddly, be helpful. In reality, baby-faced men tend to be more assertive, accomplished and better educated than their peers. It’s thought they may be benefitting from the “self-defeating prophecy effect”; in their efforts to overcome society’s expectations they end up overcompensating. Though this may also explain their propensity for crime.
The good news is technically all humans are all baby-faced
But why are there so many baby-faced people in the first place?
The good news is technically all humans are all baby-faced. In comparison to other apes, we have larger heads, flatter faces, bigger eyes, smaller jaws and we’re relatively hairless; we look more like baby chimpanzees than adults.
The idea is backed up by the growth patterns of our skulls and the fact that many of our genes aren’t turned on until much later in life; as a species, we’re late developers of the highest order. It’s thought to explain why we’re are so radically different from chimpanzees, though we’re only separated by six million years of evolution – a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. Rather than waiting for new gene variants to pop up, we simply changed their timing.
Are we hardwired to be easier on people whose features look cute? (Credit: Getty Images)
“If we look at the fossil record of humans then we see an evolution from ‘robust’ to ‘gracile’ – we evolved a more child-like appearance,” says David Perrett, a psychologist from the University of St Andrews. Alongside our more babyfaced appearance, we also evolved other child-like abilities, such as maintaining curiosity later in life.
There are two possible explanations for how this happened. For a start, there’s a ton of evidence that babyfaces are attractive to humans, so perhaps ancestors with the supermodel look had more suitors and more children (sexual selection). This is backed up by the fact that babyfaces are especially attractive in women – and women tend to be more baby-faced than men. But why?
“Evolutionary psychologists say that what men are looking for in a woman is someone who will have his babies and make healthy babies – and there are markers of this,” says Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College London.
Though everyone starts out life with wide-eyes and chubby cheeks, our facial structure changes with age as we acquire the characteristics of maturity; young, fertile women are naturally more baby-faced than older ones.
Women may be attracted to men who look like they will be a cooperative partner who will help with the kids
Eons ago, babyfaces may have been an honest signal of youth – but since those with these features have a reproductive advantage, they’ve become exaggerated over time. They may also be a signal of good hormonal regulation, since holding on to some babyish features, such as small chins, is linked to oestrogen.
But what about in men? Surely the “cute” look is at odds with the chiselled jawline and dominant, masculine features of male models? As it turns out, it’s a little more complicated than that. Back in 1998, Perrett decided to investigate. He made an ‘average’ female and an ‘average’ male face by blending several together, and asked volunteers to diminish or enhance their femininity (babyishness) or masculinity until they looked the most attractive.
“To our surprise, people did not like faces enhanced in masculinity. They remarked how cold the faces looked. Feminising either male or female faces made them look warm, kind and like a better parent,” he says. Perrett suggests that women may be attracted to men who look like they will be a cooperative partner who will help with the kids.
The other explanation is more straightforward; hi-jacking the normal response to babies has so many social advantages, deep in our evolutionary past those with babyfaces may have been more likely to survive. In times of scarcity, baby-faced individuals may have been better at begging food from friends, for example.
In reality the evolution of the babyface is likely to have been driven by a mixture of both, though the sexual selection idea is more mainstream.
So there you have it. Next time you find yourself staring affectionately into the eyes of a baby-faced friend, colleague or date – just remember, you may be the latest victim in a long-running systematic evolutionary fraud.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.